BAIKALSK, Russia (Reuters) - On the shores of Lake Baikal, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is held up as a savior and cursed as a scourge after allowing a Soviet-era paper mill to reopen beside the world’s largest freshwater lake.
Ecologists have branded Russia’s most powerful man as the killer of Baikal, a 25-million-year-old lake believed by local tribes to be sacred, and have mustered thousands of people at protests calling for his resignation.
Putin’s opponents say he has misjudged the public mood and is risking Baikal to save 1,470 jobs at the Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill, which was mothballed in late 2008 amid a pollution row.
Locals like Lyubov Kozyreva see it differently.
“Who told you the mill poisons the lake? These ‘greens’ and Putin critics are only trying to grandstand and score political points,” said the 70-year-old, who sells carrots and pickles in biting frost to supplement her modest pension.
She promised to pray for Putin, saying the former president had saved her town, some 5,000 km (3,100 miles) east of Moscow, from poverty and decay. The plant is currently testing equipment and is expected to resume production in the coming days.
Putin’s decision, hidden deep in the text of a government order published in January, is a stark example of the challenges Russia’s rulers face as they try to create jobs after the worst slump in 15 years.
Putin has taken control of efforts to deal with the economic crisis, crisscrossing Russia with orders to reopen ailing Soviet factories in towns like Baikalsk which depend on one employer.
Facing a barrage of criticism for his call on Baikal, Putin said in a speech last month that the issue had become too politicized.
“It should be studied without yelping, without making a lot of noise — thoroughly, seriously and with a responsible approach,” Putin said. “We closed this mill. And what was the result? Complete social and economic decline of the area.”
Opponents say Russia’s most popular politician, who in 2006 publicly redrew the route of an oil pipeline because of concerns about the threat to Baikal, is out of tune this time.
“Hundreds of incompetent decisions are made in the Kremlin and White House (government headquarters) ... in precisely this ‘noiseless’ fashion without public discussion or criticism,” liberal politician Vladimir Ryzhkov wrote in The Moscow Times.
Environmentalists say the mill threatens the world’s deepest lake, which contains 20 percent of the world’s fresh water, and its 1,500 species of plants and animals, including a unique type of freshwater seal.
Environmental watchdog Greenpeace says before it was mothballed, the mill daily discharged some 120,000 cubic meters of waste water into the lake, containing high concentrations of toxic substances.
“Over the past decades the Baikalsk Pulp and Paper Mill has inflicted huge damage to the lake,” Greenpeace said in an appeal urging the closure of the plant.
Though some activists have been angered by the way Putin’s opponents have sought to use the issue to damage him, they say locals would do better to find jobs in industries that rely on Baikal retaining its pristine reputation — such as tourism.
“With one stroke of the pen, this chance has been missed,” said Andrei Petrov, a campaign coordinator at Greenpeace. “Yet again, people are now chained to this ill-famed plant which has fouled everything around it.”
Greenpeace has appealed to the Supreme Court to annul Putin’s order, though Petrov said Russian courts lack independence, decreasing the chances of a favorable outcome.
Lake Baikal is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, and in 1996 Russia signed a convention obliging the government to do its best to preserve the treasure for future generations, Greenpeace said in an open letter to President Dmitry Medvedev.
“Lifting a ban on producing pulp, paper, water and cardboard ... without a closed-cycle use of water ... makes it possible to pollute Baikal with poisonous waste,” Greenpeace said.
It said the order contradicts federal law on protection of the lake and could project an image of Russia “as a state that deliberately violates its international commitments.”
A giant poster featuring a white Baikal seal cub and reading “Putin, do not kill me!” was hung on a sports hall in central Irkutsk one weekend last month when activists and locals held a protest against the opening of the plant.
“Putin signed a criminal order restarting the output of poisonous waste,” Boris Nemtsov, a leader of the Solidarity opposition movement, told the rally. “We must stop him. Those who are for Baikal must demand his resignation.”
Activists have held rallies across Russia to protest Putin’s decision. They plan more, although turnout has been modest.
The mill’s director, Konstantin Proshkin, told Reuters at the plant that environmentalists and Putin opponents had hijacked the issue and were ignoring the fate of Baikalsk’s residents.
“Baikalsk residents, our workers, have nowhere to go,” he said. “But these ‘greens’, I believe they attend those rallies to entertain themselves, to distract themselves from everyday boredom.”
“I just don’t get this old aggression against our mill.”
Russian tycoon Oleg Deripaska owns a 25.1 percent stake in the plant, which also runs the local town’s only heating plant. The state holds 49 percent.
In Baikalsk, a town of about 16,000 people snuggled between the shore and stunning mountains covered with pine forests, adoration for “savior Putin” is interspersed with acrimonious remarks about his critics.
“When the plant closed, jobless men were starving, surviving mainly on their mothers’ pensions,” said Kozyreva, who worked as a crane operator at the mill for 32 years.
“Putin himself dived in the lake and saw nothing terrible on its bed,” she said, referring to Putin’s dive to the lakebed in a mini-submersible in 2008, when he declared Baikal to be clean.
Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; editing by Guy Faulconbridge, Steve Gutterman and Mark Trevelyan